Plug-in hybrids are having a moment. If you want a car with some electric juice but also substantial gas reserves, you’re no longer stuck with just driving around a Prius, which in the last 20 years has gone from being the most revolutionary car since the Model T to the most basic possible thing you could drive. Plug-ins may be the most interesting segment in the car business right now.
The truth is that the charging infrastructure just isn’t quite there yet for full electrics. So while the automotive industry loses its shirt waiting for governments and the public to catch up with the electric-car future, it’s providing some interesting transitional options.
A plug-in hybrid is, like a regular hybrid, a car with a combustion engine that gets a boost from an electric battery. But unlike in conventional hybrids, you can fully charge the battery, which is smaller than in fully electric cars, giving you anywhere between 20-50 miles of pure electric range, depending on the model of car
I recently drove two higher-end plug-ins, and while neither were perfect, they both showed the promise and potential of this transition.
First up was the Volvo XC90 “Recharge.” This car is enormous, a perfect example of the “car bloat” phenomenon. It’s 195 inches long, nearly six feet high and weighs approximately 5,100 pounds. The model I drove had a two-liter turbocharged engine, got 445 horsepower and contained one of the most sophisticated all-wheel drive systems I’ve come across. And yet, it still averages 58 miles per gallon (MPG). My wife and I drove the Recharge for a week in Colorado, where we went up and down steep mountains and in and out of Rocky Mountain National Park (twice). We put hundreds of miles on it, including more than a few on dirt roads. We filled it up in the last 20 minutes of the trip because we were feeling generous, but it still had more than half its original tank of gas. This was one of the most amazing phenomena I’ve encountered in more than a decade of test-driving cars; it was like the car was never going to run out.
The gas engine only provides 312 of the horsepower that I mentioned above; the rest comes from the electric motor, which only provides 35 miles of range. But the car really is true to its name: it recharges very efficiently. We kept the SUV in something called “Creep” mode, which doesn’t mean we were listening to Radiohead while driving. If you take it out of Creep, the car stops automatically every single time you take your foot off the gas. Creeping means recharging. Every time we came down a mountain (which was often), we crept. By the time we got to the bottom, the car had magically achieved five miles of pure electric range.
This is a great car. It’s comfortable and roomy inside. When we went to the national park with friends, it easily accommodated our five-person group (including a surly teenager) without feeling cramped. It’s about as fuel-efficient a luxury family hauler as you can imagine.
The model we drove has a base price of $79,400. The luxury package includes heated and cooled Nappa leather seats and a Bowers and Wilkins premium sound system, which are pretty standard for upper-mid-level luxury. The one minor—yet very annoying—drawback was that we couldn’t figure out how to open the glove compartment, and man, did we try. Maybe they can show you how to do that at the dealership.
Volvo, originally a Swedish manufacturer, is now a Chinese-owned company, and China is moving much faster into the electric-car age than we are. They know how to make these vehicles fast and increasingly cheaply. This brand will be a player in the electric-car industry for years to come.
The Alfa Romeo Tonale Veloce exists in the same category of plug-in hybrids as the Recharge, but is a totally different kind of car. Alfa classifies it as a “subcompact luxury SUV,” but the company is more interested in performance than utility. The vehicle I drove had steering-wheel paddle shifters, a feature geared toward drivers with racing-simulator fantasies rather than ones who are interested in fuel economy.
Nevertheless, Alfa Romeo claims that the car gets 77 MPG combined city and highway, which seems somewhat ambitious, since the electric motor only carries a bit more than 30 miles of charge. If you have a home charger, that might work to get to the office and errands or back, but if you’re looking at extended use, your mileage will be closer to the 29 MPG gasoline-only number, which is not excellent by today’s standard. It does recharge if you put it into a certain setting, but I drove the Veloce in the Texas flatlands, and I didn’t gather any juice at all.
Because, let’s be clear, this isn’t a car for people who want to noodle around town to save on fuel economy. It’s meant to be driven fast and aggressively; it wants to be a sports car. And, to that end, it is fun and zippy and confident and cool-looking, with a sporty and comfortable interior.
The car I drove has a base price of $44,000, and with a massive suite of luxury upgrades, topped out at more than $56,000. It’s a stylish Italian car that corners like a beast and has amazing breaks. The Tonale is almost begging you to drive it around a racetrack. It’s a lot more fun than a Prius, but if you drive it right, it’s not nearly as fuel efficient.
It’s not really an SUV, and it’s not really a sports car, and, in its heart of hearts, it’s only a hybrid for compliance reasons. There are cars that save on fuel economy because that’s their mission, and there are cars that save on fuel economy because it’s required. The Veloce clearly falls into the latter category. But the fact that it exists at all is a sure sign that the car world is changing.